Monday, January 30, 2006


It occurred to me while reading this post by Digby that we call the fake war, the one with no attacks on American soil since after it was declared, the one with no battlefields and no uniforms and no Geneva Conventions, "war on terror", but we call the real war, the one where American soldiers are dying every day, "war in Iraq".

The war on terror has enemies but no location, the war in Iraq has location but no enemies. The location of the war on terror is everywhere and nowhere. The enemies in the war in Iraq are everyone and no one.

Because the location of the war on terror is everywhere, the president's war powers are now domestic. The terrorists have already won. Every step the president takes to protect our security at the expense of our essential freedoms is a victory for the terrorists. They didn't just want to kill people; they wanted to destroy our way of life. Sadly, the war on terror is nowhere; we don't have victories in the war on terror, just missile strikes in nameless villages on nameless terrorists, killing nameless people. Five more appear for every one that dies. There is no place to win the war on terror. It will never end.

Because the enemies in Iraq are everyone, trust is impossible, and victory is impossible. Anyone can blow you up. Almost everyone has a reason to. Because the enemies in Iraq are no one, defeating them is impossible, and victory is impossible.

Lest we forget, Bush has repeatedly conflated the war on terror and the war in Iraq. He wants to shore up the deficiencies in each war by giving the Iraq War a face and the war on terror a country. Never mind that this construction has been ridiculous since the first days after 9/11, when Bush was convinced that Saddam was behind the attack.

It's become increasingly clear in recent weeks that the war on terror's face and location are American, at least to the American President. What is he doing? What is he thinking?

Sunday, January 29, 2006

A bad week for staying on task

Well, that was the most godawful seven days of studying I have put in at Utah State, bar none. Sarah has been trying to keep me keeping it together. But it has been truly terrible. I don't know why exactly. I think Sarah and I are both trying to adjust to me being home all day and available for X and Y and Z.

I have an uninhabited office on campus that is basically mine to run around with, so I might start working up there some days.

I am also thinking of going back to exercise. Most of my old friends would put me to shame in personal health, I'm afraid. So this has been a bit of a phase. A four-plus year weight gain. I think I said recently that the physical affects the spiritual and the mental and emotional; maybe my lack of having to walk several blocks to my car every day has been wearing on me for the last few weeks. It was bitterly cold all the way to my parking spot, but I reaped the benefits last semester in inches and pounds.

As a Christian, I'm not obsessed with body image. I have more important things to be obsessed about, like social image and looking competent for my professors. I get sick of this and just want to be myself, but I don't know what the professional distance is with my mentors, my colleagues.

I had very strange problems with social image in Undergraduate v1.0, where I would miss a class or an assignment, and then I would cut class until the drop date, then drop. Or just not drop and fail. Or, in one of my many classroom horror experiences, fail to drop, and have to go take the final, and fail the final. As near as I can put it, I was extremely anxious about looking like a bad student, or like a failure. I had my priorities out of whack too, so I would miss one class because I stayed up too late playing Tekken 3 or whatnot, and then for the next class all my sensors would overload. If I'd been more honest about the whole thing, I would've run around the dormitory screaming and waving my arms around. That's how I felt about it every time: naked fear. My jaw is clenching right now just remembering it.

This lasted for the better part of four years. I didn't get over it until I started up at USU, after several months of the real world to knock some sense into me (including a stint as a production worker at a Camelbak-type waterbag factory).

But it still comes back sometimes, especially when I'm talking to professors. I stutter and have it all worked out in my mind ahead of time, like notes. I'm a nice guy, but I can't loosen up. I don't even know how to try; I have fun and I enjoy most everything that I'm learning. Maybe I desperately need to go to a department picnic or something.

I feel a bit better for having said all that.

Meanwhile, I'll be taking Tolkien on tape to the exercise machines, for a long overdue healthening. Like I said, I'm not obsessed with body image. But there are reasons to consider healthening to be the Christian thing to do. Jesus said once that "out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks." I have been mulling this over for a while and I'm starting to think it's a pretty deep statement. But anyway, by analogy, out of the overflow of my self-concept, or my character, my body is shaped. And right now my self-concept looks pretty flabby and lazy, and forgotten. Also, and perhaps more to the point, "You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body." This is an interesting little proof, and I will be exploring it in detail at the gym.

Good healthening to all of you too.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

One by Endo

I finished one of the best books I've ever read. Again. It's Scandal by Shusaku Endo. I've commented on Endo's work before; he's one of the best authors you will ever read, the Japanese Graham Greene. Book space is dear at our house, but I have eight of his books on my shelf.

Here's Scandal on Amazon. I wrote a spoiler-free review there, but others gave away more than I would have. So here it is:

Scandal is the story of an acclaimed Japanese Christian novelist in old age named Suguro. At an awards ceremony honoring his distinguished career, Suguro hears disquieting rumors that he has been seen carousing in the red-light district. He enters the district to investigate the rumors and safeguard his reputation, but is unprepared for what, and who, he finds there.

Shusaku Endo uses this story as a kind of autobiography, accurate in depth of feeling, if not character and circumstance. He said in his A Life of Jesus that he thought of the Gospels as collectively forming a true portrait of Jesus, even where he saw them as fuzzy on the details. That is a good way to read Scandal, as a portrait of Endo.

Suguro struggles with old age, oncoming death, and the dissonance between his private self and his public reputation as an upstanding Christian. In many ways, Suguro is forced to confront himself; he learns that the foundations he has built his life upon are unsound, even his work, his marriage, and his religion. Endo's unflinching portrayal of himself in the figure of Suguro is thus poignant and, at times, tragic.

Scandal is about, among other things, a man going to a dangerous, uncertain place with his religion. Some religious people will not want to follow him there. On the other hand, this is not an exclusively Christian novel, and readers of any religion, or none, would have much to gain from it.

It is helpful, but not necessary, to have read some of Endo's other work to put Scandal in context. Silence and A Life of Jesus are classics. At least ten other works are in English translation.

Scandal is so rich and complex, and finally, so human, that it practically requires a second reading. But I am beginning to find that each time I read it, I demand another reading myself. I doubt that I will ever come to the end of it.

It's hard to explain further than that unless you've read the book, which I hereby suggest you all do.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Work, Utah, religion, publicity

I wrote this post in a sort of meandering way, so expect the main topic to slide around a bit.

Three years ago plus about a month, Sarah and I got married in Maranatha Baptist Church here in Logan. About a week later, I started working for WestWords, a college textbook compositor. We designed typesetting and book layouts, then published them all the way from red-inked manuscript to the printer.

I was especially proud of working on The Feynman Lectures on Physics. This is sort of the Holy Grail of physics textbooks, by Richard Feynman, a very popular guy for a Nobel Prize winner. They hadn't been corrected for decades. We worked on the definitive edition. I designed the mathematics typesetting that we used to enter corrections.

I also worked as the customer service point person for our company's software, MathMonarch. It stretched me a lot to work out problems with customers, with no training in business writing and such. I tried to act like their advocate and see things from their point of view.

Anyway, yesterday was my last day. I felt very ambivalent about leaving this job, which completed my longest continuous stint at any one workplace. I got another job for roughly equal pay, to do research for one of my professors at USU. It was a good career move and it will give me good scientist experience.

But I'll miss all the people I made friends with. Since I went to part-time when I started school in June 2004, I've felt some disconnection from them.

To be honest, too, because I live here in Utah and 80-90% of my co-workers were LDS, I felt somewhat disconnected from the dominant thing in their lives. I didn't have much way to share what they saw.

I remember early in the job, one of the managers, not with the company now, came and talked to someone who'd started when I did, about all their personal connections in the valley. Around here, family is intimately connected to religion and I felt very isolated.

I'd been through a pretty bad set of months just before starting at WestWords where I worked in a bottle factory as a temp (bought by Nalgene when I left). I had gotten into arguments, and even one shouting match about religion, even at work. I didn't have any sense of what should be public and private. I was very gung ho about being in Utah and shining my lonely Protestant light, adrift on a raft of orthodoxy, floating above an endless ocean of darkness. It didn't take me long to see the inadequacy of this viewpoint.

So at WestWords, I turned the other direction. most of my discussions about religion began and ended with the fact that I wasn't Mormon. I found it hard to follow my co-workers into their religious territory, even couched in very broad terms. If any of them reads this, I would want them to understand that I didn't blame them for this and I had no hard feelings. They were fish swimming in their own water. I learned a lot by listening to them talk about what their religion meant to them.

Now that I'm working elsewhere, I get to decide how public or private religion should be with my professors. Sarah gave me a necklace with a cross on it for Christmas. I asked for it because I wanted, among other things, to have a sort of physical expression of my inward belief. Maybe there is some parallel here to the Sacraments. Or, like CS Lewis said in Screwtape or somewhere, there is something different about praying in your head and praying aloud on your knees, because humans are physical beings, and physical movement alters the mental, emotional, and spiritual.

But I wear it under my shirt because the cross is not socially acceptable in Utah. The long practice of the LDS people is to regard wearing the cross as somewhat morbid and concentrating on the suffering of Christ rather than the resurrection of Christ. If you Google "mormon cross" you will run across the explanations (from Mormons and non-Mormons alike). I'm not trying to make big waves because of something that's on my shirt, so it stays hidden, just for me.

[digression: Incidentally, there is an interesting thread at about making waves for Christ through the wearing of shirts, particularly shirts with quasi-Christian messages calculated to shock or offend. I wrote a comment there that probably makes more sense if you read the discussion it refers to.]

Still, by accident, I've had it out in front of both of my professors, and this is only the third week of the semester.

Starting Monday, I have one class-hour on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, a meeting for my research on Mondays, and a meeting for my independent-study class, meeting at, well, irregular intervals. Five hours are spoken for. The rest of my time is my own.

And so again, I'm ambivalent. It's a stunning opportunity to show what I'm made of, how responsibly I can manage my time, and what a career in research might feel like. But I don't have as much direction, nor a manager, nor insulation from bureaucracies, nor co-workers. I could get pretty stir-crazy in my cave. Time will tell, I guess.

Sunday, January 15, 2006


When I was a foolish, foolish young man going to college, I took a spice rack that had doors on hinges, with all the spices it contained and a few others nearby. My childhood home in Seattle has essentially two units, and this spice rack came from the unused downstairs kitchen. It had 21 spices, some that I'd never even heard of (like foenugreek; is that spelled right?).

One of the other bottles had a white label with permanent marker: "SAFRON". It was an ordinary sized spice jar.

It was also full.

I didn't understand the significance of this for quite a while. I felt vaguely guilty, but I thought it should smell good, so I put uncrushed threads of saffron in my microwave popcorn. At some point, the guilt got to be too much for me, and I stopped using it. Fortunately, most of the bottle was still left.

I told my dad about the popcorn and he thought I was incredibly crazy.

For those who don't know, saffron is the handpicked stigmata (female sex organ) of a Crocus Sativus Linneaus. Each flower has three. It takes 100,000 or so to make a pound. Here's a helpful article that is quite interesting; among other things, it pegs the price of saffron at $40 to $65 per ounce, more expensive than silver. Whole Foods, it says, was selling some at $8.99 per 0.04 ounce, which is more like $225 per ounce.

I finally saw saffron on sale at our local kitchen store. It is sold in spice jars with small cards that look like flypaper, with a thumbnail's worth of the spice trapped on the side. I have no clue now how much my stash is worth. I've noticed that time and gravity have ground down the spice near the bottom of the jar, but the vast majority are still whole.

Today I took out my jar of saffron. It has been snowing since the morning and I decided to make potato soup. I picked out a few threads, less than 10, and put them into a white 1/4 cup measuring cup so I wouldn't lose any. I dropped one on the floor and picked it right up. Then I used the back of a small spoon to grind the threads into powder. At the end, I held it up to my face, and they stirred like iron filings attracted by a magnet while I breathed through my nose. I couldn't believe that such a small thing could flavor about a gallon of potato soup, but I dumped them into the slow cooker anyway. The liquid turned yellow immediately.

A few hours later, the onions aren't done, but the broth is delicious.

Sometime, go to the store and buy some yellow rice in a packet, by Vigo or Mahatma or a similar brand. Look at the ingredients list; after all the spices, salts, and even chemical preservatives, the least, final ingredient is saffron.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Century mark

For this 100th edition of Letters and Papers, a few comments on a he-said she-said article from the LA Times.

The postmodern-esque disease at the root of modern political journalism is the propensity to act as sound-bite stenographers. You're not allowed to say who is lying, or who is wrong. You must give equal time to opposing partisans. If an issue reflects badly on one party, a similar pejorative issue must be found for the opposing party, no matter how dissimilar or inconsequential. No judgment, no reasoning. The main tool is the tape recorder.

Witness the article I linked, where the main story is "Bush says critics in Iraq war 'irresponsible'; critics disagree". It has 22 paragraphs, 18 of which are devoted to direct or indirect quotations. By the latter I mean things that could have been replaced with a quotation, like "Bush said the war's critics should stop questioning the motives that led him to launch the invasion of Iraq in March 2003." It doesn't get any shallower than this.

The journalists say their readers can judge for themselves who is lying and who is wrong. And that the story is all there if you read between the lines. To my mind, this is completely irresponsible. The first-drafters of history are selecting information and weaving narratives; maybe they congratulate themselves on their subtlety.

But they are the public's paid summarizers, and they aren't doing their jobs. You have to go to editorial and partisan and advocacy viewpoints just to get to truth-telling above reproach. It ticks me off that these news organizations are not willing to put their credibility on the line to tell the truth.

Anyway, I wouldn't be writing this if I hadn't noticed an odd juxtaposition that is like reading between the lines. It involves one of the four non-quotation paragraphs in the article, and an apparent non-sequitur.

[Bush] said that when soldiers in a battle zone heard politicians questioning their mission, "it hurts their morale."

In a new surge in violence, 120 Iraqis have been killed in suicide bombings in the last week in Karbala and Ramadi, and 29 were killed in an attack in Baghdad on Monday, Associated Press reported. Since the Dec. 15 elections, 498 Iraqis and 54 Americans have been killed.

Get it? The second paragraph follows the first because it responds to the first paragraph. After all, if politicians criticizing the President hurts your morale, just imagine what getting killed a lot does for it.

The rest of the article is about Bush-said and Democrats-said; but the important thing is Reality-said. And it was a doozy, right? That's how you read between the lines and find out the truth, on Paragraphs 17 and 18.

This completes the initiation into the Hermeneutic Order of Newspaper Reading, Guardians of the Public Mysteries, Keepers of the Purple Shaft. See you tomorrow, in between Paragraphs 15 and 20.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Language problems in Christianity

[Note: This was cross-posted as a comment on a post on about Christian politics.]

I read TS Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions recently, so cribbing from that, you might see Christians with different approaches to politics as members of different language communities, and dialogue between them as a translation problem. The reason conservatives and progressives have trouble talking to one another is not just that they disagree about appropriate means to a common end. Like scientists of different paradigms, they disagree about the appropriate problems to be solving in culture. Also, some of the concepts just don't translate well.

This happened to Newton when the Principia came out. Pre-Newton physicists rejected it at first because it did not explain the origin of innate forces like gravity. That explanation was thought to be an essential component of any proper theory of dynamics. Then they used F = ma because it worked so well and explained so much. The mystery of the origin of innate forces was moot for a while (until general relativity). Similarly, if progressive Christians were running things, "the abortion problem" might take a back seat to "the wealth gap problem". It's not that abortion's not important, it's that progressives live in another world from conservatives.

I don't mean that progressives go to California and conservatives go to Texas, I mean that they look at the world with different eyes. Reminds me of when Sam Seder went on CNN a month ago and started talking about the War on Christmas in terms of the war in Iraq:

"Listen, as far as the war on Christmas goes, I feel like we should be waging a war on Christmas. I mean, I believe that Christmas, it’s almost proven that Christmas has nuclear weapons, can be an imminent threat to this country, that they have operative ties with terrorists and I believe that we should sacrifice thousands of American lives in pursuit of this war on Christmas. And hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer money."

To me, that spoke volumes about the relative importance of the two wars, and how pointless it was to talk about destroyed Nativity scenes when soldiers were getting blown apart in a forgotten conflict. To the anchor and the conservative guy in the same segment, it sounded like nonsense, or more accurately, foreign language. ("I don't think that exists. Bob? Help me out here.") The conservative guy went on talking like he hadn't understood a word Sam said, which was, of course, the case.

So it is for us progressives and conservatives. I don't just disagree with conservatives about the most efficacious way to decrease abortions to the glory of God. I locate abortion in a different constellation of political issues than a conservative. Same dots, different lines, different sky.

The hard quest before us is not just to listen to each other (though it would be a good start!), because we're sure to hear barbarisms, or what we want to hear. Jesus encountered this kind of hearing a lot. We have to get inside our fellow Christians's heads, stop translating what they say into our own language and learn theirs. It all looks very different from the inside. The same goes for non-Christians's heads as well.

It can be scary to get inside someone's point of view like this. I think what I have been afraid of most lately is some radical reconstructive surgery on my religion. I am content with my Christianity, and it's taken me a while to get to that point, so taking the risk of understanding is pretty traumatic.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Almost, almost back to normal

But first, the best spam ever.

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Sheep Master Gold can improve profitability with the least amount of data and is easy to use and very powerful. Best of all, Sheep Master Gold is only $95.00. Centric Software offers unlimited technical support from 8:00 AM to 9:00 PM Monday thru Saturday.

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    Track Rotational Grazing
    Track Unlimited Number of Animals
    Track Medical Treatments
    Track EPDs
    Track Wool Production
    User-Defined Reports that allow you to create custom reports
    Export User-Defined reports
    Calculates Projected Lambing Dates
    Calculate Adjusted Wean Weights using ASI age adjustment Factors
    Wool Production Reports
    Track Weighting Data and Average Daily Gain for each weighing
    Can be used chute side (laptop) or in the office.

I am hard pressed to explain why this is the best spam ever. First I thought it was a joke, then an awful porno, then a Lemmings-type video game. But I scrolled down, and it is indeed sheep management software.

So "Sheep Master Gold" pretty much says it all.

It was cost-effective for a very niche, $99 product to advertise to me this way. Somewhere out there, someone will click through this spam because they are having trouble herding their sheep.

Arcadia, welcome to the 21st century.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006


I received Half-Life 2 for Christmas, so I went to the local video-game reseller (Fun Unlimited) and picked up the Half-Life Platinum Edition (with all the first-generation games) for $10. I've been enjoying it quite a bit. For those who haven't heard of the games (you should!), Half-Life is the story of MIT theoretical physicist Gordon Freeman. When a science experiment at a remote research facility goes dreadfully wrong, weird alien things start popping out of nowhere and the government comes in to stage a cover-up. Freeman takes a trusty crowbar to hand and starts breaking his way out. Video game drama ensues.

This was a momentous game at the time for many reasons. Call of Duty and similar games with scripted sequences owe a huge debt to Half-Life's raising the dramatic stakes on the industry. But its biggest contribution was to create a culture that allowed ordinary users to access the game engine and create new games using the same tools the Half-Life developers had. It spawned games great in their own rights, like Counter-Strike and Day of Defeat. The sequel is poised to do the same.

I really felt like I should finish the old ones before I played Half-Life 2. Like wanting to watch A New Hope before The Empire Strikes Back.

I admire something about perfection in sport and elsewhere, so I was rooting for the Colts to go undefeated in the NFL and I'm rooting for USC tonight in the Rose Bowl. Only a few more days, then I can settle into a routine of computer use and work again. And blogging, I guess.